Interview about White project and Victória with Helena Scragg for the exhibition on Norrkoping Art Museum 2009
Helena Scragg: Victoria is the first in a series of four planned films, which examine the European idea of beauty.
Salla Tykkä: For more than 10 years I've had in mind some film scenes, dealing with what I considered to be extremes of beauty in my childhood. These ideas took physical shape in the form of a giant water lily, a white Lipizzaner horse, a gymnast and Alpine mountain scenery.
HS: The water lily is a classical motif in art history often symbolizing the flight of youth. Here you have filmed the giant water lily Victoria Cruziana in the Botanical Garden in Helsinki.
ST: As a child I had seen water lilies in the lakes in Finland, but when I saw a film where Tarzan's son was floating on a giant leaf on the river, I could not stop dreaming of doing the same. My imagination was even more aroused when I realized that the plant exists for real and produces flowers four times larger than the Finnish water lilies. My grandmother took me to see the plant Victoria in the Helsinki University Botanical Garden, but as it flowers only during nighttime it was impossible for me to see it. Tarzan stories are revealing in the way they put the white man in a superior role to all other creatures. For me this is a good example of how the concept of beauty is tied to our history. European explorers brought Victoria Amazonica and Victoria Cruziana from South America to Europe during the 19th century. And I think of the plant, named after Queen Victoria, as a symbol of colonial power.
HS: The way you have filmed Victoria, the spectator experience the water lily coming to life as an individual on the screen. How did you plan the filming process?
ST: My intention was to document the 48 hours or so when the flower opens for first time on the first night in white colour and then closes for the day, only to open again the next night but this time in a pink or red flush. I had planned to build a rail around the pool so that the camera slowly could move around it for 24 hours. That turned out to be too difficult, so instead we placed two still cameras, one above and one on the side of the pool, and used video camera for the moving shots, which capture the idea of going around the pool. The cinematographer played an important role for the development of the film and I am happy that we did it this way. It is indeed a Hollywood style film and the plant becomes the central character, a centerpiece for admiration that later sinks into decadence.
HS: You've mentioned the British author John Ruskin (1819-1900) as an important source of inspiration.
ST: I started to read a collection of texts by John Ruskin and was immediately touched by his descriptions of nature. He lived in a time of major changes in society; it scared him and he sought comfort in beauty, nature, God - and in art. Reading his texts I felt that he knew and loved nature deeply, both on the grand scale and in detail. He observed the moving clouds, rivers and grass with incredible sensitivity. When reading Ruskin I started to recall my ideas for a film and understood how near the ideas of romanticism are to me, and are in my thoughts on beauty and virtue, ugliness and evil, the individual and the flock. The more I read of Ruskin the more frightened I got from understanding his obsessive need to find the pure and the good, the beauty that leads to thoughts that are intolerant to other human beings.
HS: You mean that the idea of perfection could be an ideological foundation for racism?
ST: Yes, exactly. His need to reach a peak and find a perfect thing made by nature or by human beings. I felt for the first time how this need for the clean, the pure and perfect is a pattern that exists both in our culture and in me. John Ruskin's texts made me question why I consider certain objects as being beautiful. I share certain aspects of Ruskin's passion, yet I don't want to compare myself with him.
HS: Why did you choose the Adagietto from Gustav Mahler's 5th symphony as the sound track?
ST: For me art has to do with emotions, always. When I go to the cinema the music and the sound track always makes a big impact on me. That is why music has played an important role in all of my film works. In this case it was a pure coincidence that I started to listen to this symphony by Mahler whilst editing the film. It connected with the visual image in a perfect way. The music of Mahler is very romantic and does associate the work with Ruskin's lifetime, despite the fact that there are no words by Ruskin in the film.
HS: Beauty is such a delusive concept. It is relevant to all people, conscious or unconsciously, yet I get the feeling it is not really something we discuss seriously.
ST: I agree. Our existence is very dominated by our vision. So, things that we consider beautiful have a strong position in our value world. The need, almost a lust for creating perfection makes us pay almost any price for it.